Saudi women take to spinning their wheels

Saudi woman
A Saudi woman, Amira, who works in Aramco, drives to her office in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

Tista' taqra bil- Malti.

Women in Saudi Arabia took to the roads early on Sunday, ushering in the end of the world’s last ban on female drivers, long seen as an emblem of women’s repression in the deeply conservative Muslim kingdom. “It’s a beautiful day,” said businesswoman Samah al-Qusaibi as she cruised the eastern city of Khobar just after midnight with police looking on. “Today we are here,” she said from the driver’s seat. “Yesterday we sat there,” she added, pointing to the back.

A Saudi woman, Amira, who works in Aramco, refuels her car as she makes her way to her office in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

The ban’s end, ordered last September by King Salman, is part of sweeping reforms pushed by his powerful young son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in a bid to transform the economy of the world’s top oil exporter and open up its cloistered society. “It is our right and finally we took it. It is only a matter of time for the society to accept it, generally,” said Samira al-Ghamdi, a 47-year-old psychologist from Jeddah, as she drove herself to work. She was one of a small group of women who had managed to secure a license beforehand.

The lifting of the prohibition, which for years drew international condemnation and comparisons to the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan, was welcomed by Western allies as proof of a new progressive trend in Saudi Arabia. But it has been accompanied by a crackdown on dissent, including against some of the very activists who previously campaigned against it. They now sit in jail as their peers take to the road legally for the first time. The number of new drivers remains low, as women with foreign permits only began converting them earlier this month. Others are training at new state-run schools, with 3 million women expected to drive by 2020.

Some still face resistance from conservative relatives, and many accustomed to private drivers say they are reluctant to take on the country’s busy highways. “I definitely won’t like to drive,” said Fayza al-Shammary, a 22-year-old saleswoman. “I like to be a princess with someone opening the car door for me and driving me anywhere.”

ECONOMIC BOON

A Saudi woman celebrates as she drives her car in her neighborhood, in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia, June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

Concerns that women drivers will face abuse in a country where strict segregation rules usually prevent women from interacting with unrelated men prompted a new anti-harassment law last month. The Interior Ministry plans to hire women traffic police for the first time, but it is unclear when they will be deployed. The public security directorate reported no unusual incidents one hour after the ban ended. Riyadh resident Amr al-Ardi said the women in his family would wait to see how the system works before they start driving.

The decision to lift the ban in the kingdom – where once-forbidden cinemas and concerts have also returned – is expected to boost the economy, with industries from car sales to insurance set to reap returns. The change should also save families billions of dollars on chauffeurs while encouraging more women into the workforce and raising productivity, if only modestly at first.

Auto companies produced theatrical ads to mark the ban’s end, and private parking garages designated “ladies” areas with pink signage.